9. The Priest


In which our hero duels with the dangers of thinking in straight lines

“God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”

Pippa’s Song Robert Browning in Pippa Passes 1841

A building out of all proportion loomed on the urban horizon. A massively ugly church made all of brick and completely out of scale with everything around it. Some kind of hubristic madness designed to remind the ordinary citizen of the immense power of God.

– Or, more likely, the monument to a megalomanic benefactor with too much money and power to be resisted, he felt. What could they have been thinking, putting up such a graceless building on this spot?

He headed downhill past the rail track and on towards it, approaching the high double doors. What went on in there? he wondered. To his surprise the door opened easily on its hinges, somehow weightless and without the ominous creak from the movies that he was expecting.

Incense invaded his nostrils. Catholics.


The ceiling was impossibly high, floating away yet-more-unto-God he supposed. The interior was horribly plain. Brick really was so much less impressive than stone, he felt. It reminded him of those two failed brick cathedrals of the Anglican persuasion, Guildford and Liverpool, over-sized towering monuments more suited to the terracotta extravaganzas of Victorian railway architecture than to a twice-millennial mythology of thought.

Indeed, Brunel’s bridges were more impressive than this. True, there was some overdone marble and a few mosaics, but they did not fit at all. He was surprised to see that saltpetre was still precipitating from the brick after all these decades, adding its odd white stain to the morbid interior.

He adventured further in. Not much more than a folly of high Victoriana, the space strangely vacant as if the bird had flown.

The Holy Spirit will be nowhere to be found in here then, came the thought.

The fourteen Stations of the Cross, a notably lacklustre set, were devoid of the finesse he had seen in other holy places, rendering so vividly to memory a particular rebel’s pathway from pain to redemption.

Join the club, came the grim thought. There goes Jesus again.

There were a few tourists in here, walking in haphazard fashion he felt, poring over the faded postcards in the corner, peering up into the heights in the vain hope of finding something interesting to look at. He supposed the baldacchino wasn’t bad, in fact rather good Arts and Crafts on closer inspection, if you liked that kind of thing. A notice inside the front door welcomed all to “St Bartholomew’s Church, A Church of England Parish within the Diocese of Chichester. St Bartholomew’s is the world famous Fr Wagner church noted for its unique style, superb traditional Anglo-Catholic liturgy, and fine music and preaching.”⁠1

Ah, the Oxford Movement.

Yet another bunch of people with their finger in the dyke. He really had no patience with it. What would St Bartholomew – actual name Nathanael bar Tolomai – have made of this. To what part of him could this possibly be a monument? His real first name meant ‘gift of God’, which at least meant his parents had been pleased to have him.

A small plaque in the corner informed that the Roman calendar placed his memorial on the 24th August (even if the Orthodox calendar ever prefers 11th June for whatever now unexplained reason). One of the twelve apostles no less, native to Galilee and a good friend to St Philip they say, who was his sponsor. Rumours persist that he penned a Gospel, seemingly lost forever, allied to sightings of him preaching in Asia Minor, Ethiopia and India. Martyred of course like a lot of them, flayed alive in Albanopolis, Armenia, his last port of call. You can blame Astyages, enraged brother to Polymius, the King of Armenia, who had succumbed to the charming way Nathanael told a story and had converted.

– That cannot have been their real names surely? he muttered to himself.

“Relics lie in San Bartholomeo all’Isola in Rome and some lay in Canterbury England formerly.” he read.

Henry VIII will have put a stop to that, he thought.


An extravaganza in at least three different marbles protruded from an alcove on the left, a pulpit demonstrating a riot of taste from that century, shared with the looming browns of Glasgow City Hall but lacking their subtle cohesion.

He was surprised to see, leaning over the edge of the green balustrade, a somewhat wild man in a clerical collar and a surplice that had seen better days. The hair was pepper and salt, unkempt, the surplice stained with foodstuffs carelessly dropped during ample lunches that came seemingly from some better place than what the North Laine restaurants would be offering if he ever got out of here. This had been a poor area and, although this man had seen money, he too was clearly neglected.

The priest was in full swing when he arrived near the base of the podium.

– You! he shouted at Oldman. Call yourself a namesake? Fie! shaking a fist.

Namesake? Lost on him.

Somewhat unChristian behaviour though he felt, and shouting in Church a worse sin than not observing the silence of a library, no? The voice however was weak with age or exhaustion and did not boom around the nave as he would have expected. He looked around at his fellow travellers. No-one had batted an eyelid. Perhaps he did this regularly, maybe this was what they all came for, the local entertainment, to be harangued by a deranged priest?

He scrutinised the cleric, whose beady eye seemed fixed upon him as he proceeded with his sermon. The delivery implied top volume; huge sweeping gestures, wide open mouth, staring eyes, vehement body language. Yet he made no impact on the crowd, for they ignored him. Oldman however listened out of respect but it was as if the entire conversation was taking place in his head.


– There is a great deal of argument in the world.

Oldman agreed that this was true; and these days, often accompanied by a torrent of words of poor quality, as indeed is also the general level of debate.

– Everyone is trying to make sense of it, yet no-one has the skill any more. For how is one to reason correctly without the tools? How can one determine what is valid or invalid if logic, that happy science of reasoning, is not applied in analysis of argument to determine whether it is correct or not?

Science? Surely this was a priest off-message?

The priest suddenly rounded on Oldman, a bony finger extended towards him in pointed emphasis at the tip of a long straight arm, yet speaking to the crowd.

– Beware the siren song of the Comfort Seekers!

The fullness of the gown swept the whole room like the wing of a dark angel. He made them sound like the Lotus Eaters, foul hedonists the lot of them. But had he actually said anything out loud? To what was the man responding? He looked around him. The visitors remained oblivious.

– The blessed Cardinal himself has held that, apart from an interior and unreasoned conviction, there is no cogent proof of the existence of God. One does not need to study logic in order to reason correctly nor is it universally applicable; you must decide whether logic is the right tool for the job. You are positing only simple Boolean logic. Other sorts of mathematical logic, such as fuzzy logic, obey different rules.

Yet when people talk of logical arguments, they generally mean the type being described here. 

He was warming to this.


The Deductive Argument

The priest prepared himself. A cough and a blow of the nose to complete, with a handkerchief flourish. He spoke in a clear loud voice to some invisible gallery.

– The contest will use the power of deductive argument, a most rigorous and convincing place for a novice to begin. The character of a deductive argument has the advantage of being able to provide proof of its conclusion whether valid or invalid, yet which, if its premises are true, will always be true.

A pause for effect. He leant over the edge of the pulpit and almost whispered to Oldman below, with great solemnity.

– So, what is your Proposition?

Oldman already had one on his mind.

– One for sorrow.

Just testing but the response was rapid and disdainful.

– That is no Proposition, sir, but a Statement, a mere Arrangement of Words. You have there presented a conditional statement, which is not an argument, for it does not assert the premises which are necessary to support what appears to be its conclusion. Deductive argument has three stages, proceeding by premise, inference and conclusion. One or more propositions should be stated explicitly, for an argument needs several, known as premises, as evidence for accepting the argument and its conclusion. No, you will have to do more to call forth a Proposition. Remember you may assert it as true or deny as false, either will do. Then we shall have something to argue about!⁠2

The words hung in the air. Oldman blurted out:

– My car will not start because there is something wrong with the engine.

Only for the priest to emit a theatrically despairing sigh.

– And who, may I ask, ever taught you to think?

Oldman thought for a moment. No-one had ever asked him that before.

– Well no-one taught me to think, they don’t do that in this culture. In France maybe?

– Try your maths teacher, the priest commented drily. You know, 2 plus 2 equals 4, that kind of thing? You are steeped in the logical tradition yet you remain ignorant. Your thinking is currently riddled with assertions without ever producing anything which one might reasonably describe as an argument.

Another pause.

– So, not accepted. Your statement is an explanation and still not an argument, for here the fact your car will not start is explained using the fact that something is wrong with the engine, but this is not arguing A to B.

The lips were pursed.

– This is why I say that no-one knows how to have a good argument any more. In deductive logic you may not argue from A to B using a statement of the form ‘A because B’.


Oldman had trouble keeping up with this and was momentarily lost for words, his mind flailing.

Clarity returned.

– Well then I will argue B to A, that is, arguing for A using B as evidence. Something like: ‘There must be something wrong with the engine of my car, because it will not start?’

That will make “A because B” an argument for B, therefore A is equivalent, no? Between ‘There is something wrong with the engine, therefore my car will not start’ and ‘My car will not start, therefore there is something wrong with the engine’. And if I am trying to argue that something is wrong with the engine of my car as indeed I am, then it is clear that only the second statement is the valid argument!

One-nil he thought triumphantly.

The priest paused before looking up kindly through bushy eyebrows. Ah, the Nice Policeman? thought Oldman, I must be getting somewhere!

– That’s as maybe, but the counter-intuitive nature of Implication means that the fact that a deductive argument is valid does not imply that its conclusion holds.

Yet more density, Oldman observed to himself as the priest continued.

– Obviously a valid argument can consist of true propositions, because it can consist equally of entirely true or entirely false propositions. Now, what about the assertions that all insects have wings and that woodlice are insects, which areboth false premises. What should your conclusion be?

– Why, that woodlice have wings.

– Precisely. Which conclusion would be untrue, because the premises of my argument were false. Yet observe that the progress of the argument actually remained valid? True premises on the other hand will always deliver a true conclusion and the argument be entirely valid.

– Excuse me, but surely the truth of the conclusion does not invalidate the argument? What is more, can I not in fact reach a true conclusion from one or more false premises? What about Fish live in the sea?

– True.

– Dolphins are fish.

– A premise, granted, but false.

– Therefore dolphins live in the sea?

– Hmm, which is true enough. Well done Oldman! Finally a false conclusion yet a valid argument – if not a sound one, I warrant. The one thing you cannot ever do though is reach a false conclusion via valid inference from true premises. And so finally you may learn these rules.

He counted on his fingers. Oldman was surprised to see that they were sheathed in mittens, the white bony extensions to the dark glove like the hands to a cartoon witch.

– If the premises are false and the inference valid, the conclusion can be either true or false. If the premises are true and the conclusion false, then the inference must be invalid. If the premises are true and the inference valid, then the conclusion must be true.

Oldman still struggled with the density, but was touched that the priest seemed genuinely interested in seeing positive results from such a short apprenticeship.

– Yet, as I must repeat, be careful not to confuse valid argument with sound argument. A sound argument is a valid argument whose premises are true, an argument which therefore arrives at a true conclusion. In daily life, arguments are almost always presented with some specific purpose in mind where, as well as criticising the argument, one may also criticise the apparent intent of the argument.

Oldman was stumped by the difference and the priest picked up on his troubled silence.

– Well try this. Rain makes the streets wet; the streets are wet; it must be raining.

– I think I can understand that one all right. Affirmation of the Consequent, in the genre A implies B, B is true, therefore A is true.

– So what about Rain makes the streets wet, it isn’t raining, therefore the streets aren’t wet?

– Denial of the Antecedent, an argument of the form A implies B, A is false, therefore B is false. Subtly different I see. The problem is not that the implication is invalid, rather it is the falseness of A that does not allow us to deduce anything about B.

Oldman was getting his second wind.


The Religious Argument

Somehow satisfied with these conclusions, and finally ready to start upon his evening address, the priest began to speak in a loud stentorian voice, full of assurance, its message echoing across the empty spaces of the church.

– My Children, every Event has a Cause.⁠3

The statement hung in the air, pregnant with significance. The priest paused and looked around him. There were no challengers, no audience indeed that Oldman could see.

– And the Universe a Beginning.

The silence extended to the rafters. His beady eye looked somehow troubled. Casting about him he announced:

– It is in the nature of all Beginnings to involve an Event.

A raised eyebrow, but silence as ever ensued.

Uh-oh, testing time.

The analysis of deductive logic fresh in his mind, Oldman had counted three Premises. Inference should now follow and lead to Conclusion. As the priest did not continue, he plucked up the courage to fill the void.

– From which you infer? His voice somehow too faint in the echoing space, but the eye immediately grew bright and fixed its fire on Oldman.

– I use the process of inference, sir, which will take the premises of my argument, all of which you seem so far to have accepted, in order to obtain further propositions. My inference therefore, the inference, is that the Beginning of the Universe must therefore have involved an Event. At which final stage I will arrive at another proposition, the one I assume to be the conclusion of the argument and to be stated as a final stage of inference.

The priest somehow cast about the room with a desperate glance. Oldman could not help but feel that there was considerable and unhelpful pain in this way of conducting arguments. The priest continued:

– Therefore it follows, id est, we conclude, from that which one may infer, that is, derive, a new Proposition: The Universe has a Cause!

Delivered triumphantly, yet still without challenge from the invisible assembly.

Oldman felt that somewhere he ought to be issuing one to the conclusion, which he felt had only been arrived at by an obscure logical trick. He supposed that for Christians it was important to be able to demonstrate unchallenged the logicality of their belief in magic, in that the cause of the universe being argued for here would turn out to be God. But did not the argument open itself just as easily to a proof in favour of the Big Bang?

The priest wiped away a little bead of sweat coursing down his temple, the floodlights somehow suddenly very hot in here. Just like being on Mastermind, Oldman surmised.

Another pause, this time for effect.

– The conclusion of my first argument is the opening premise in another, more interesting. I repeat: the Universe has a Cause!

Still unsure of what the priest might be driving at, Oldman protested.

– But that presents the conclusion first. Won’t you have to support it later by premises and has that not already been done?

– Yet allowed under the rules I believe?

This was undeniable, the logic implacable.


The Fallacious Argument

That seam perhaps exhausted now, and for no apparent reason, the priest suddenly changed tack. Which, because he continued in the logic of his sermon, was not immediately obvious to Oldman.

– My Children, God created you, therefore do your duty to God.

Oldman jumped straight in.

– Well if I was guilty of plain statement just now, then so now are you. The phrase ‘do your duty to God’ is neither true nor false and therefore not a proposition and therefore the sentence is not an argument. Surely Causality is important?

– Well spotted, but the priest sailed on portentously, his voice ringing. Good and evil rule the universe.

Oldman felt bound to interject again, somehow unconstrained by the formal church context.

– But that is mere reification or hypostatisation, treating an abstract concept as a concrete thing, the Pathetic Fallacy.

– Fear not, for magic and other psychic phenomena do not exist. Nobody has shown any proof that they are real.

Bizarrely, Oldman was warming to his subject. He had counted three attempts now to start an argument by premise but none convincing.

– That statement is fallacious. You are trying to argue that something must be false because it has not been proven true. I find that rather pernicious and anti-scientific, for this is not the same as assuming something is false until it has been proven true, which is a basic principle from empirical science. Nor is this fallacy applied in our courts of law, where thankfully one is generally presumed innocence until proven guilty.


– If the Bible is accurate, Jesus must either have been insane, an evil liar…

And here he paused for effect.

– …or the Son of God.

Oldman was surprised, was the man losing his grip?

– Well there you have presented a conditional statement which again is actually not an argument, for it does not assert the premises which are necessary to support what appears to be its conclusion.

The priest sailed on regardless.

– Believe the Bible to be true, my children, for nobody can prove otherwise! 

Then the penny dropped.

– That is the same appeal to ignorance as earlier but this time the other way around: true because not proven false. I believe this is called ad ignorantiam.

The priest pressed ahead, looking steadfastly at the assembled congregation which had somehow grown around the pulpit.

– There remain ample proofs of the truth of the Bible…

The eyes burned as looked around him, fire also in his words.

– …and all those who refuse to accept that truth will burn in Hell.

– Shame! cried Oldman. Nothing more than a naked appeal to Might makes Right, argumentum ad baculum, the threat of force and the trick of cheap politicians!


He was suddenly aware of other eyes fixed upon him. Where was all this Latin coming from? Nobody had the faintest clue these days about Latin, how come he was remembering something he had never learned? He guessed it must be the context: the faint whiff of incense hanging in the air, the raving anglo-catholic priest in the pulpit, the unspoken regret that Vatican II had replaced Latin with the vernacular. Then again it might be his obsession with taxonomy, how boys took pride in naming the flags of the world, ultimately a useless activity and for ever doomed to remaining incomplete. And what could be more useless these days than Latin?

He decided to change tack himself and countermanded, including the faithful flock in the sweep of his argument.

– Let us look more closely at these assertions that there is truth in the Bible. What about the Flood for example? If as described in the Bible, that would require an enormous volume of water to be present on the earth. Now the earth does not have a tenth as much water, even if we count all that which is frozen into ice at the poles. Therefore no such flood occurred.

The priest chuckled, for Oldman had himself now succumbed to the same fallacy. Now he was picking up the Latin.

– Still learning are we? You speak out of ignorance, ad ignorantiam. In science, which I dare say you affect to know more about than religion – as is often the case with your sort…

Murmurs of assent rose from the crowd.

– …we can readily assume from the lack of evidence that something has not occurred. Looked at another way, if it is known that an event would produce certain evidence of it having occurred, then the absence of such evidence can validly be used to infer that the event did not happen.

The priest hammered home his advantage, stabbing his finger into the edge of the pulpit as he spoke.

– Of course the Bible is true. Millions of people know that it is. Are you trying to tell these here assembled that they are all mistaken?

Oldman was undaunted.

– Maybe I am! For there you have moved us on to the ad numerum version of the appeal to the people, asserting that the more people who support or believe a proposition, the more likely it is that the proposition is correct. It will not hold up! And perhaps one should not use such words as “of course”, for they provoke suspicion, since they may be used to intimidate others into accepting dubious premises?

Perhaps he had hit home, for the priest swung back to affable again and sweetly observed:

– Well we know that God exists because the Bible tells us so. And we know that the Bible is true because it is the word of God.

– But that is nothing more than a classic of the circular genre, the Loaded Question, the favoured trick of all lawyers in cross-examination. A complex question, a fallacy of interrogation or of presupposition in the genre ‘Where did you hide the money you stole?’ The interrogative form of Begging the Question as it happens, since it presupposes a definite answer to another question which has not even been asked. Politicians again make good use of this one!

Silence ensued. Oldman felt that his demonstrations of fallacious argument were beginning to hit home. Might he have this priest on the run? He changed gear and addressed the crowd.

– What if I were to tell you that my mother was healed of cancer?

The priest was quick to interject.

– Praise the Lord, then, for He is her healer.

– Amen, said the crowd.

At last some repartee, and Oldman gave back, keeping his gaze on the assembled flock.

– So, will He heal others who have cancer?

The crowd paused, only for the priest seemingly to lose it.

– Ah… The ways of God are mysterious.

Avoiding Oldman’s gaze in his turn. Oldman could not at first work out the tactic but he tried to do so as he spoke.

– I am disappointed in that response for it is mere explanation dressed up as argument, argument given as after-the-fact explanation which does not apply to other situations. You might as well say I took an aspirin and prayed to God, and my headache disappeared! That means God cured me of the headache.

The priest led straight back in, almost gabbling, so keen was he to prove his point.

– Non causa pro causa. The false cause fallacy, identifying a cause of an event that has not actually been shown to be the cause. A implies B. Since A is false, B is false, so A does not in fact imply B at all!

Delivered at breakneck speed, the beady eye fixing him in its baleful gaze. Oldman had obviously fallen into a trap. This was worse than a chess match.


He went back in his mind over the events of the last half an hour. He reminded himself that this whole conversation had begun because the priest lamented the passing of good argument. To remedy the situation Oldman had opened himself to a quick training in deductive logic so that the priest might have an equal sparring partner, using this easily assimilable if very formalized way to conduct the argument. But somehow the wily priest had moved them on to arguing about argument, wilfully using fallacy as the Aunt Sally. This had introduced a more emotive and oppositional note which felt to Oldman more like proper arguing. He thus had felt on surer ground and decided to remain on the offensive. He continued, but inclusively.

– I know Christians generally dislike atheists, perhaps because we unsettle you. You are Christians, so you must dislike atheists.

– Pa! Do you really think we are going to fall for that old chestnut? Nothing more than the fallacy of accident. I grant that you are growing in subtlety, for there you are applying a general rule to a particular case but whose accidental circumstances mean that the rule is inapplicable. The error is often made when moving from the general to the specific, as in this case.

He addressed the gallery.

– My children, this fallacy is often committed by moralists and legalists who try to decide every moral and legal question by mechanically applying general rules.

The Priest returned to his argument, somehow keen to keep the pace up.

– No, we know that life is always much more complicated than that. For example we Christians do not have to believe that all scientists are atheists. Isaac Newton was a scientific genius, yet upon his own admission he believed in God. And one could even assert the same for Albert Einstein.

Oldman felt he was getting the hang of this contradictory approach.

– Ah, ad verecundiam, the appeal to authority, using the admiration of the famous to try and win support for your assertion. I grant that this line of argument is not always completely bogus in fact, as reference to an admitted authority in the field may actually be relevant to the discussion in hand.

The priest ensued regardless.

– Nonetheless, my children, let us not forget. Atheism is an evil philosophy, practised by Communists and murderers.

Oldman marvelled that the old emotional rhetoric of the Church could still emerge in this overt way.

– Once again our old friend – argumentum ad ignorantiam, argument from ignorance. I am surprised you are not more careful. Made invalid in this instance because the truth of an assertion does not depend upon the goodness of those asserting it! This is an abusive charge of inconsistency I might add which you are using as an excuse for dismissing my argument.

The priest however was warming to the crowd and followed up with:

– Remember the Soviet Union, a state that took up atheism and subsequently collapsed. Thus must our state avoid atheism for these same reasons.

– But that’s just another kind of false cause fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, assuming something to be the cause of an event merely because it happened before the event.


The Secular Argument

The priest drew himself up to his full height, his nostrils flared.

– Very well my man, you who wish to be the Champion of the Secular, let us try you on your own ground! What of the affirmation that since we have always ridden horses it would be foolish to start driving cars?

Completely left field. Where did that one come from, some part of Oldman’s brain wildly wondered as he responded? Had they moved onto the old if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em tactic? His response came marginally late and the priest jumped into the gap.

– Giving up already?

Goading. How had the man stayed so fresh? Oldman girded his loins and picked his way carefully.

– Well that is little more than an appeal to tradition, asserting that something is right and good simply because it is old or because that’s the way it has always been. Argumentum ad antiquitatem I believe they call it?

He smiled at his growing confidence with the Latin. Put that in your pipe and smoke it old man!

But the priest waded back in.

– What of ‘The bicycle is made entirely of low mass components, and is therefore very lightweight’?

– The fallacy of composition, Oldman rejoined, where you have concluded that a property shared by some parts of something applies to the whole. Like when people use the argument that because a car uses less petrol and causes less pollution than a bus, cars are less environmentally damaging than buses.

– Correct sir, and there again no more than the other fallacy of composition where you have concluded that a property of a number of individual items is shared by a collection of those items!

The priest was only just getting into his stride and he shot out next a fallacy in the Latin.

Argumentum ad misericordiam?

As the answer somehow tripped off his tongue, Oldman cast around for a way of regaining the advantage.

– Cute, an appeal to pity, special pleading. In the style of ‘I did not murder my mother and father with an axe. Please don’t find me guilty; I’m suffering enough through being an orphan’. The fallacy is committed when the arguer appeals to pity for the sake of getting the conclusion accepted.

The priest kept up the pressure.

– You studied at a rich college, therefore you must be rich.

– The opposite fallacy of the previous, the fallacy of division which also exists in two varieties. The first is to assume that the property of something must apply to its parts.

It crossed Oldman’s mind that the priest seemed to be seeking advantage by shifting to a more provocative liberal content, particularly when he went on with this, somehow spoken from within his understanding of a liberal mindset:

– Do you know what upsets me the most? People like you arguing that something like positive discrimination is a bad thing. You would, you’re white.

– Rubbish. That’s the old poisoning-the-well trick. Another ad hominem alleging that I have rationalised a conclusion formed from selfish interests. But you can only use it as a means of dismissing my argument, not much else!

– Well how would you react to the notion that pornography must be banned then? Surely it is violence against women.

– The argumentum ad populum that you were accusing me of earlier, no better than a naked appeal to the gallery. This fallacy is often characterised by use of emotive language – trying to win acceptance of the assertion by appealing to a large group of people. Through it you are trying to make it look as if I am unsympathetic!

The priest continued on the offensive as another shot in Latin crossed Oldman’s bows.

– Petitio principii.

Oldman on the other hand was tiring and answered somewhat mechanically.

– Begging the Question?

The priest snapped:

– Women write the best novels because men do not write novels as well.

His outrage at the baldness of this statement woke Oldman up.

– Oh dear, exactly as I would have expected. Do you know that your premises are at least as questionable as the conclusion reached? This one is circulus in demonstrando, the circular argument, where you assume as premise the conclusion that you seek to reach and so rephrase the proposition to make the fallacy appear as the valid argument. Not unlike ‘Homosexuals must not be allowed to hold government office’.

– So any government official who is revealed to be a homosexual will lose his job. Faced with this situation, homosexuals are going to do anything to hide their secret, and will be open to blackmail. Therefore homosexuals cannot be allowed to hold government office. Indeed an argument like this was used in the British Secret Service to place a ban on homosexual employees. Rather like the homeless telling us it is hard to find housing, which it is.

The priest interjected:

Mere argumentum ad lazarum, the argument that because someone is poor, he or she is sounder and more virtuous than one who is wealthy. The opposite of ad crumenam of course.

Oldman did not pick that one up. Fallacies in Latin were now coming thick and fast but he found himself comfortable with the rhythm. It was like taking on the entire readership of the Daily Mail and he was rather enjoying it.

Another shell in Latin zoomed past him.

Dicto simpliciter!

– Nothing more than a sweeping generalization of the type If people shouldn’t park here, then people shouldn’t park here to buy their newspaper, where you apply a general rule to a particular situation which has the effect of rendering the rule inapplicable.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc!

– Asserting that because two events occur together they must be causally related which leaves no room for other factors that might more be the cause of the events. Gun ownership has gone up this year, as has violent crime. Which only goes to show that gun ownership causes violent crime.

The priest jumped back into the liberal provocation.

– Nevertheless it is true that if we legalise marijuana, then we would have to legalise crack and heroin and then we’ll have a nation full of drug-addicts on welfare. Therefore we cannot legalise marijuana.

Oldman managed a laugh. Was he being deliberately provocative?

– Ha ha. The Slippery Slope: should one event occur then other harmful events will also. No proof exists that such harmful events are caused by the first event.

The priest next tried one which Oldman felt was a little bit below the belt.

– It is perfectly acceptable to kill animals for food. How can you argue otherwise when you’re quite happy to wear leather shoes?

– Hmm, an old chestnut for vegetarians the world over. This is a circumstantial form of the same ad hominem fallacy, arguing that the people here ought to accept the truth of your assertion because of my particular circumstances.

The priest sensed some defensiveness, perhaps an advantage to pursue.

– So come on then, vegetarian, your apprenticeship is almost up! Give us an example of equivocation, or the fallacy of four terms.


Oldman took time to draw breath and endeavoured to stand taller. Poise. Posture. Breathing. He slowed his pace to conserve energy.

– Occurs when a key word is used with two or more different meanings in the same argument. What could be more affordable than freeware? Yet to make sure that it remains freely redistributable, we must license it to make sure that users can do what they like with it subsequently.

He was now the one on Mastermind but without knowing how how he had come to know his subject.

The priest again:

– If Sally voted last year she is over 18. If Sally is over 18 then she voted last year.

– Converting a conditional, if A then B, therefore if B then A.

The priest shot right back:

Argumentum ad novitatem!

But this was merely the opposite of the previous, an appeal to novelty, asserting that something is more correct simply because it is new or newer than something else. Oldman was growing bored and rather naughtily threw out:

– You might as well say Things are bad under Labour so let’s vote Tory.

Oldman enjoyed being arch but the priest barely registered the hit and pursued with:

– You will remember under Thatcher that the ‘Dries’ believed free-market capitalism was the only possible economic theory, whereas the ‘Wets’ believed in one nation and were to be despised.

– Had we but known how to read it at the time, that was a case of bifurcation, the false dichotomy, the black and white fallacy, presenting a situation as having only two alternatives where in fact other alternatives exist or can exist. Let me try you on ‘Nude bathing is healthy so naturist beaches should be permitted in Brighton’.

– No, for that kind of openly sexualised behaviour threatens the morals of society.

– But that is a retreat into The Straw Man, misrepresenting some else’s assertion and then knocking it down. A fallacy because it fails to deal with the actual argument being made.

– It is never right to oppose the law by breaking it.

– That means that you would not have supported direct action by the likes of the Rev Martin Luther King? So for you the legislative process is more important than the struggle for Black liberation? Typical of your sort!

Oldman was losing his cool.

– Not so. You are using Extended Analogy, assuming that mentioning two different situations in an argument about a general rule will constitute a claim that those situations are analogous to each other. Now you are just being randomly abusive.

– So? You’ve been abusive too!

The priest stared him down, an eyebrow raised:

– I see. The famous “you too” fallacy where an action is argued to be acceptable because the other party has also performed it. Tush. As a personal attack it is also a special case of argumentum ad hominem already dealt with earlier.

Oldman, fatigued beyond belief, felt himself descend into nonsense.

– All cats are animals. Dinger is an animal. Therefore he is a cat.

The priest was quick to pounce.

– Sorry, that second assertion is wrong.

A moment, before the killer blow.

– Which of course means that Dinger is not a cat!

His eyes wild, his body almost falling out of the pulpit. Oldman was speechless, which allowed the priest to press home his advantage.

– Argumentum ad logicam you see?

Somehow triumphant.

– Back where we started young man! If an argument is fallacious, must its conclusion be false? I am arguing a proposition is false since it has been presented as the conclusion of a fallacious argument, although we know that fallacious arguments can arrive at true conclusions! The mere fact that the argument from fallacy can be invoked against a position does not automatically prove the position either, as this would itself be yet another argument from fallacy!!

Another slight moment as if things were unravelling.

– Allow me to assert that Birds are a form of animal based on carbon chemistry. Now cats are a form of animal based on carbon chemistry: so aren’t cats a form of bird?

The priest smoothed the arm of his surplice in what seemed a familiar gesture and Oldman felt his energy just drain away.

– That is the fallacy of the Undistributed Middle and well you know it, where A is based on B. You are attempting to argue that things are in some way similar without actually specifying in what way.

But a dinosaur floated worryingly into his mind.


Somehow this logical tennis match had become a Great Cosmic Event. The roof had come off the church and the pillars soared into the evening heavens. A swirl of starlings drew their shadowy patterns across the evening sky as they headed for the West Pier.

The building was now crowded to football capacity and all were following the argument in unison, like the crowd does a ball at Centre Court, pulpit to floor to pulpit. Oldman’s tired brain lost track of the score. 40-30? Deuce maybe? Might they even be on Set Point? As he sank senseless to the floor, it felt more like Match. Yet what had been proved? Who had won the argument?



1 See www.stbartholomewsbrighton.org.uk/

2 An argument being, to quote the Monty Python Argument Sketch: “a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition”. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, episode 29 after the credits, aired 2 November 1972

3 All these examples bar the first have been taken from those offered by Mathew at mathew@mantis.co.uk. They form a cogent sequence which perfectly fits my argument (though I have rearranged somewhat) and are to be found on the website http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/SocialConstruction/Logic.html#stages. Interestingly this material also exists at http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html so who knows who borrowed what from whom? We’re all magpies in the end.